Election signs on display in front of the West Asheville Public Library on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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With another court ruling shaping election changes just hours before, the filing period opened at noon Monday in what promises to be a contentious, high-profile election season.

Back-and-forth legal rulings in a handful of state and federal cases have shifted district lines, uncanceled and then re-canceled judicial primaries and blocked a new state elections board from taking office.

Monday morning, a three-judge panel in Wake Superior Court rejected an emergency motion from plaintiffs in a state case challenging state legislative districts.

The decision at the outset of filing, means a mixed set of results this year in long-running challenges to the districts.

Late last year, a court-ordered redraw of House and Senate districts changed the lines in Bladen, Cumberland, Guilford, Hoke, Mecklenburg, Sampson and Wake counties.

A special master redrew districts in those areas in December, a year after a federal three-judge panel rejected the General Assembly’s plan.

Some of the new districts were cleared for use in this year’s election after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down February 6. But the high court left in place a stay on Wake and Mecklenburg counties, saying they were a violation of the state constitution and should be settled in state court.

The move, followed by Monday’s denial of intervention at the state level, left districts drawn by the legislature in the two counties in place for this election cycle.

In a statement released after the ruling, Allison Riggs, senior attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the move leaves in place districts that judges have declared unconstitutional.

“We are reviewing what the next steps are for the plaintiffs in the case who have been seeking justice since 2011 and still have not found it,” Riggs said. “We are concerned by the precedent set in today’s order. When a plan is found to be unconstitutional, it’s only right for the court to review the remedy enacted to make sure that it is legal and fair.”

The denial of the motion sets state legislative districts in what promises to be a year with more contested elections in a decade. In the last cycle, a presidential year, 76 of the 170 legislative races were effectively uncontested. For this cycle, Democrats say they could get close to their goal of fielding candidates in most of the 120 state House races.

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The latest round in the legal fight over state legislative districts follows a blistering back and forth last week as the General Assembly returned to take up a new class-size fix.

At a press conference Wednesday, House Elections and Ethics Law Committee chair David Lewis angrily denounced the move to seek relief on the Wake and Mecklenburg districts in state courts, calling it “judge-shopping.”

“Democrats’ groups lose in state court, they run to federal court,” Lewis said. “When they lose in federal court, they run back to state court.”

Democrats in the legislature were quick to fire back, noting the strategy is the same employed by the legislature in the fight over judicial primaries, which were canceled in a bill passed passed last year.

Plaintiffs fighting that new law won a partial ruling in federal court last month, which upheld canceling primary elections in local judicial races, but reinstated primaries for statewide races for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Legislative leaders appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in their favor Friday. State elections officials said the ruling means that filing for all judicial races would move to June 18-29.

Meanwhile, legislators interested in reconfiguring judicial districts and a potential move to a system of merit selection instead of elections, released another round of options on judicial districts.

The maps, which the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting released Friday, are available online.

State board questions

The legislature also took action last week on resolving a standoff with Gov. Roy Cooper over the makeup of a new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Cooper successfully sued to prevent the new board from taking office. In a 4-3 ruling in late January, the state Supreme Court struck down the law creating the new board.

Last week, as part of a new, multi-section bill, legislators proposed a new version of the board, this time giving the governor more appointment power and adding an additional  member to the board to raise the total number of members to nine.

The legislation passed the Senate on Friday in a 37-5 vote. The bill, which included a long-sought fix for class-size reductions, divided Senate Democrats with nine voting for the bill and five against it.

The legislation now heads to the House, which is scheduled to hold a voting session before adjourning on Tuesday.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said last week the bill has strong support in chamber as well as solid local support in districts around the state.

McGrady said he recently met with Henderson County school leaders and is confident the changes will solve the problems of funding for teachers in enhancement classes such as art, music and physical education.

Preparing for spring session

While the legislature winds down its latest interim work, preparations continue for this spring’s regular session, which starts in early May.

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Included is a new statewide review of water and sewer system fees and charges and use of public-utility enterprise funds. On Monday, McGrady and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Union,  convened a newly formed legislative study committee, which is due to report on potential changes to state law. The committee is scheduled to file an interim report this year and a final report in 2019.

McGrady acknowledged the recent legal battle around the Asheville water system, saying he anticipates an eventually  resolution to be worked out among the parties.

The state has a variety of challenges, he said, and that calls for a broader look and combination of incentives and tighter regulations to deal with them.

“I think we’re now at a point in time where we’ve probably got some water and sewers system that are not sustainable  as they are and yet as litigation has proved, we can’t come in and fix them one at a time,” he told committee members.

The new committee plans to meet once a month. McGrady said there are no plans for the committee to work on legislation for this year’s session.

 

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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